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Suriname Signs Deal with Alcoa to Expand Mining Operations, at Expense of Indigenous Communities

The government of Suriname has signed agreements with two aluminum companies from the United States and Australia to expand their bauxite production and exploitation rights in the country. The companies involved are the Pittsburgh-based Alcoa LLC and Australia’s BHP Billiton. Alcoa is looking to expand the bauxite refinery plant it already runs and explore new projects with Billiton, such as a proposed aluminum-melting plant and a hydroelectric dam. While the government of Suriname sees this development as an opportunity to boost the country’s flagging economy, the indigenous communities who will be directly affected by these new projects, but who remain voiceless in the discussions over the use of their lands, have reason for apprehension.

The Bakhuys region of Suriname, 140 miles southwest of the capital city of Paramaribo, is believed to hold between 200 and 700 million tons of bauxite. Aluminum is made from the extraction of alumina from the ore bauxite. The economy of Suriname has been suffering recently from a declining worldwide market for bauxite. Franco Demon, the Natural Resources Minister, has said that with this latest deal “Suriname stands on the verge of a huge development.” The supply of bauxite in the region is expected to last through 2032.

Some of the indigenous peoples of Suriname are steadfastly opposed to the national government policies and foreign investment projects that are in conjunction exploiting their land. The Alcoa agreement is the latest in a long line of ‘development’ projects, including extensive timber, mining and gold extraction endeavors. In response to what they view as corporate encroachments, the Saramaccan indigenous community has been working with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a body of the Organization of American States, since October of 2000. The Association of Saramaccan Authority (VES) first approached OAS because of the government’s willingness to allow foreign corporations free reign over their land. VES states that all of their direct pleas for help from the government in stemming the tide of exploitation have been ignored.

Reports from indigenous advocates indicate that the implementation of the Alcoa agreement will adversely affect three, possibly four, indigenous villages located in the Bakhuys area. One of these communities faces forcible relocation. While it is difficult to obtain concrete information about the effects of this project on indigenous peoples, these reports suggest that there has been no attempt on the part of Alcoa to consult with the people of these indigenous villages about the impacts of increased bauxite production on their lands. Such flagrant violation of the rights of indigenous communities in its zone of operations belies the commitment to “sustainable development” that Alcoa elaborately touts on its website. Email queries directed to Alcoa’s Suriname branch went unanswered.

Alcoa has been operating in Suriname since 1916, through its subsidiary Suriname Aluminum Company LLC (Suralco). Alcoa is the leading worldwide producer of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum, and alumina. The corporation also markets the consumer brands Reynolds Wrap® foils and plastic wraps, Alcoa® wheels, and Baco® household wraps.